The Book That Made Me: Frances Hardinge

Published on: 08 April 2020 Author: Frances Hardinge

Deeplight author Frances Hardinge was an avid reader when she was growing up - but Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising had a huge influence on her. She tells us why in the latest edition of The Book That Made Me...

The front cover of The Dark is Rising and a young Frances Hardinge

To be honest, no single book 'made me'. My psyche and imagination are a sprawling mosaic of all my childhood influences - Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Alan Garner, Tolkien, Catherine Storr, Nicholas Fisk, Leon Garfield, Conan Doyle, Richard Adams, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, the Fighting Fantasy books, Tennyson, Peter Dickinson, Margaret Mahy, Herge, Agatha Christie, the Brontes, and many others.

However, one series of books left particularly vivid fingerprints upon my imagination – Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence.

My father read the whole series to my sister and myself over many evenings, often next to a roaring fire. I still remember how it felt, listening on tenterhooks as the stories unfurled. For me, those books still carry the scent of excitement and woodsmoke.

Intoxicating and chilling

The Dark is Rising books tell the tale of an ancient, hidden struggle between the forces of Light and Dark. Several times in history the Dark has risen, and has barely been prevented from overwhelming the world.

In the modern day, the young Drew siblings are drawn into this battle by their adopted great-uncle, Merriman Lyon. Elsewhere, Will Stanton is about to turn eleven and discover that he is the last of the Old Ones, those of the Light who defend mankind. He must adapt quickly, for the Dark is rising again with unprecedented power, readying itself for one last climactic battle...

There is a potent sense of the Dark as a force in its own right – overwhelming, insidious, implacable and filled with icy menace. The way it works through people is just as chilling. The human betrayals in the series scarred my memory as much as the supernatural terrors.

The books intoxicated me with a feeling of dark wonder, and scenes burned themselves into my mind with dreamlike power. Little details still give me a frisson to this day. An owl-like hoot in broad daylight, from an unseen something that is not an owl. A single black feather on a heap of snow, below a broken skylight on a wild night.

Discovering awe and the mythic

The strange and mysterious events made sense to me, in the way that dreams make sense. I seemed to understand them intuitively. My gut instincts warned me of the danger of sharing bread with the black-clad Rider, on a Midwinter morning in a transformed world. When Will walked out to the shadow of an ancient oak and gave Herne the Hunter his horned head, it suddenly seemed right and inevitable. I didn't know how a terrifying, skeletal horse could be destroyed by a torrent of tree blossom, but that image is still vivid in my head, in all its eerie beauty.

I didn't understand what was happening at the time, but I was being given a sense of the mythic. I was being shown that folklore and legends didn't have to be tame little tales with pastel-coloured pictures. They could have a dangerous edge, slicing into ordinary life like a knife through a peach. I was discovering awe.

The ancient places and entities of the books have a fierce, untameable power, and must be approached with care. Many of these ageless forces are neither good nor evil, and even the friendly ones are far from safe.

Herne is willing to lead a hunt against the Dark, but he is a wild, shadowy vortex of cruelty and daunting power. Then there is the Greenwitch, neither friend nor foe. In mundane terms, 'she' is nothing but a huge, simple sculpture of branches and bone, made every year as part of a Cornish festival, then cheerfully hurled into the sea as tribute. But the Greenwitch is also a being of appalling power – unreasonable, inhuman, both newborn and ancient, and utterly alone.

The series didn't just shape my imagination, and infect me with a love of myth and folklore. It also coloured my sense of place. All Cooper's locations are potent and layered. One careless step can send you plummeting from the everyday into the older, truer version of the location. I was left with a feeling that every place has a soul, which you could understand through its stories – its history, anecdotes, folktales and legends. I still feel that way.

Spellbinding books that never lose their power

If you asked me now, I'd probably say that I'm not keen on stories with Chosen Ones or moral absolutes. But Cooper's The Dark is Rising series will always be an exception. Coming back to these books as an adult, I'm still spellbound by them. I can also now see how masterfully Cooper manages the pace, and weaves in legends I hadn't known about as a child – the Wild Hunt, the Mari Llwyd, Wayland the Smith, and so on.

Last of all, her writing is beautiful, and still fills me with a sense of wonder.

'There was something about Christmas Eve, they both felt, that demanded company; one needed somebody to whisper to, during the warm beautiful dream-taut moments between hanging the empty stocking at the end of the bed, and dropping into the cosy oblivion that would flower into the marvel of Christmas morning.'

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge is out now in paperback.

More from The Book That Made Me

Our Dark is Rising review

The Dark is Rising

Author: Susan Cooper

This is probably one of the greatest fantasy sequences ever written. Darkly magical and intense Cooper weaves her storytelling wonder over fully realised characters and worlds, drawing in the reader and leading them on a journey that will leave them clambering for the rest of the series.

Read more about The Dark is Rising

Discover Frances's book


Author: Frances Hardinge

Hark and his best friend Jelt spend their days on a strange island hunting for magical "godware". But everything is about to change for them in this breathtaking, richly imagined story, full of heart and soul and incredible world-building. 

Read more about Deeplight

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